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City, schools come together to create green schoolyards for students

Parks at school sites provide play spaces, ecological benefits

The recent completion of a new green schoolyard and natural playscape at Burton Elementary/Middle School and Plaster Creek Family Park wrapped up a year-long project that saw numerous partners, including the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools, come together to create a better space for students and their families.

And over the next 12-18 months, similar makeovers will be completed at other parks as part of city/GRPS partnerships, including Brookside Elementary, Buchanan Elementary and Sigsbee Park. 

A welcome sign to the recently renovated and reconfigured Plaster Creek Park, a collaboration between area organizations including the City of Grand Rapids and GRPS

The $1 million project at Burton Elementary/Middle included valuable contributions already at the planning stage from Burton students and families. Those included design charrettes to get input from the young people who would be most using the new space. Students even took the designers on walks through the park on several occasions, showing them what they would like to see changed. The 19-acre park’s northeast border is located just south and west of Burton Elementary/Middle, at 2133 Buchanan Ave. SW.

Taking just over a year from groundbreaking to completion, the project added a raft of improvements, including an outdoor classroom called “The Nest” and a natural playscape called “The Meadows” that features a stump forest made from local trees harvested and stored by the Grand Rapids Forestry Division. The park also has a rain garden, a native plantings meadow, a picnic area for neighbors and more.

The goal for Burton students is more outdoor time, something Middle School principal Michael Perez, a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of an urban school district, can’t wait to see happen if GRPS returns to in-person instruction.

“I think this park represents the idea that learning is not, nor should it be, confined to the classroom,” Perez said. “It’s very exciting to see the project completed. Unfortunately, due to COVID, we have not been able to take full advantage of this great park. Hopefully soon.”

In a statement, GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby noted: “The new outdoor classroom gives students and teachers the opportunity to broaden their educational experience through exploration of our natural world. The benefits of green schoolyards go well beyond serving students. The spaces provide countless benefits to the health and wellness of the community and environment.”

Grand Rapids Director of Parks and Recreation David Marquardt heartily agreed.

“This was an important investment,” he said. “It is in a park-deficient area of our city, so to be able to partner with the schools for use of their land was invaluable.”

Marquardt noted that the current projects have echoes of partnerships in the 1950s and 1960s between GRPS and the city’s parks department. Back then the campaign was called SOS — Save Our Schools, and it saw new schools built in and around neighborhood parks.

Stormwater Management and Watersheds

At Burton Elementary/Middle, Marquardt is especially excited about a $101,000 contribution from the city’s Department of Environmental Services, which went toward the construction of a wetland area that allows for a more sustainable approach to stormwater management and resulted in a wetland play space with log bridges and stepped boulder pathways. 

“This will likely be a great teaching area,” he said, “and it speaks to the importance of sustainable stormwater management and watersheds.”

Other funding for the project includes a $270,000 grant from the Wege Foundation and $786,000 from the city’s 2013 parks millage. Grand Rapids also was among seven U.S. cities to receive a $25,000 planning grant from the National League of Cities and Children and Nature Network to enhance connections between children and nature.

‘I think this park represents the idea that learning is not, nor should it be, confined to the classroom.’

— Michael Perez, principal, Burton Middle School

The 2013 millage generates about $4 million annually through property tax and expires in 2020, but the voters of Grand Rapids in November 2019 approved a new dedicated parks millage to replace the current one. It will generate approximately $5 million of funding annually and is an evergreen millage with no end date.

“Partnerships and collaboration in Grand Rapids are the only way in which great projects like this happen,” said Marquardt. “Many cities speak about great collaborative efforts. Grand Rapids is the first city in which I’ve ever lived and worked where collaboration goes much further than just talk.”


SNN story: Students tell designers what they want to see in their park

A celebration of the green schoolyard at Burton Elementary/Middle School brought together city and school officials, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and GRPS School Board President Kristian Grant, fourth and fifth from left, respectively
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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